By Steve Lichtenstein
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Earlier this summer, following a whirlwind of roster activity, Nets general manager Sean Marks told a press gathering that the organization was in “talent-acquisition mode” and that he’d leave it to coach Kenny Atkinson “to sort it all out.”
“Any time you can add talent, that’s obviously a bonus. That’s what we’re trying to do,” Marks said at a State of the Nets news conference with Atkinson on Tuesday at Brooklyn’s practice facility. “We’re excited to have these young men that fit the brand of ball that we’re trying to play, but they also fit what we’re trying to do off the court as well. It will be an interesting challenge, I think, to figure out minutes and so forth and lend for a competitive camp.”
Well, with training camp a week away, let the sorting begin.
When the Nets start practicing Tuesday at the U.S. Naval Academy, Atkinson will face the chore of evaluating a group heavy in the guard and wing categories.
Who plays, and how much, will go a long way toward determining how successful the Nets will be this season.
Let’s do the math. NBA games last 48 minutes, and teams typically place three guards/wings on the court. Certain smaller players, such as Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and newly acquired DeMarre Carroll, can “stretch” into power forwards.
That equates to 144 minutes of playing time that Atkinson must allocate to a bevy of candidates in whom the Nets have heavily invested time, money and/or trade capital.
Even though Atkinson wouldn’t disclose who he thinks his Day 1 starters will be (“Way back here,” Atkinson said while pointing to the back of his head when asked. “Eventually, it will come to the mouth, and we’ll let you guys know.”), let’s assume Brooklyn will open with Jeremy Lin, D’Angelo Russell and Allen Crabbe in positions 1 through 3. Even considering Atkinson’s breakneck pace, the trio should average at minimum 30 minutes per game.
Caris LeVert, Brooklyn’s first-rounder in the 2016 draft, should be the first player off the bench. Let’s give him about half the game, or 24 minutes.
Sean Kirkpatrick, who is developing into a solid scorer off the bench, probably deserves 18 to 20 minutes per game.
Taking the low end, that brings us to 132 of the 144 available minutes.
That’s not a lot of time to divvy up between guys like Spencer Dinwiddie, Isaiah Whitehead and Joe Harris, who each averaged over 20 minutes per game and combined for 55 starts last season.
Again, this scenario envisions no minutes for Carroll or Hollis-Jefferson on the wing when, conceivably, they could play together in a more position-less lineup with the Nets’ big guards.
To what lengths will Atkinson go to win as many games as possible this season? Will he, for instance, pull Russell from the court after he’s made a few 3s in a row to give more developing players their reps, as he routinely did last season when a hot player’s allotted time expired?
The Nets, as we all know by now, have no reason to tank. Next summer, the last of their traded first-round draft picks from the infamous Kevin Garnett/Paul Pierce summer 2013 blockbuster will belong to Cleveland after its August megadeal with Boston featuring Kyrie Irving.
Brooklyn might as well at least try to make winning more of a priority, especially in the early going. Only three of the Nets’ eight October opponents qualified for the playoffs last season and two of those — Indiana and Atlanta — were decimated by offseason defections.
Atkinson claimed he can manage the seemingly bipolar challenge of creating opportunities for all his young players while simultaneously playing to win.
“This is Year 2, so I think it changes a little (from last season), adding the young talent that we did,” Atkinson said. “I do think there’s development through competition. We’re going to have to compete for minutes, and the players know that. I think that drives development. Last year, you saw that we used our entire roster. We’ll continue to do that. Obviously, for some of the young guys, we’ve got our G-League team (on Long Island), which is in its second year. That’s going to be a big part of (the plan). I think we have a plan in place obviously for the guys that will be playing the big minutes, but (also) for the other guys — they’re going to get their opportunity. It’s a long season.”
The Nets did a terrific job last season selling the public on its new “development culture” after about a decade of incompetence. When your team doesn’t have a lot of talent, it’s a far easier sell. You just play your young guys and look for bits of improvement. Even if the losses stockpile, you can explain it away.
That won’t necessarily be the case this year. Atkinson will soon find out that with greater talent at his disposal comes greater responsibility to win games.
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